For all the accomplishments, all the triumphs, all the great athletes he’s coached and mentored, you can learn a lot about Dave Shoji when you hear his answer to the question: What were your most memorable moments as the women’s coach at the University of Hawaii?
“Well, we’ve had monumental wins throughout the years. Obviously the four national championships are huge. Some of the losses stick out in my mind. Long Beach State eliminated us five years out of maybe seven. We were up 2-0 on Michigan State at home to go to the final four and we lost in front of 10,000 people. That will never leave my mind.”
He paused and pondered.
“We’ve lost in the final game. That’s hard to take.”
It was suggested that it was a shame the losses were so impactful.
“They stand out almost as much as the wins,” he said.
Perhaps that’s why so many of his coaching friends and foes talk about him as such a great competitor.
“It comes from playing sports. Sports is probably my life,” Shoji said. “I’ve always been like that.”
And so he’s back for his 40th year at the helm of the Hawaii program.
He made the announcement during a family vacation in Austria. Yes, 67-year-old Dave Shoji, this past Christmas season, tweeted simply, “Announcing that I am returning for 40th season in 2014! Go bows!”
Others have coached longer, but certainly only one active coach can relate.
Russ Rose enters his 36th year at Penn State this season. Having won six NCAA titles, Penn State, like Hawaii, has seen many of its former athletes grace the USA Olympic rosters.
“Dave is one of the gentlemen of the game,” said Rose. “To have the success he’s had over four or five decades shows that he can change with time and still has the ability to relate well to the players and they play hard for him. That’s what it’s about.”
• • •
Indeed, Dave Shoji is Hawaii volleyball.
And not just the women’s college team, the University of Hawaii Rainbow Wahine.
No, Shoji is Hawaii volleyball in every respect. From the men’s team, which he started in 1978 and coached between ’78 and ’85, to the Outrigger club where his sons played, to the bursting-at-the-seams crowds at the UH matches.
“Dave’s a rock star in Hawaii,” said University of Buffalo coach Reed Sunahara, the former UCLA player and product of Hilo, Hawaii, who was once recruited by Shoji to play men’s volleyball at UH.
“He can’t go anywhere without people knowing him. From the big island to Molokai. Everyone knows Dave. Dave’s like Elvis Presley.”
Veteran Arizona coach Dave Rubio is one of Shoji’s closest friends.
“I’ve known him personally throughout the years, but Dave is a tough guy to get to know,” said Rubio, who met Shoji in the mid-1980s. “I think that’s a product of him being such a well-known person in the islands and really off the islands as well. I think he has a close-knit circle of friends that he trusts. But he’s terrific, very giving, very supportive, funny. I really enjoy spending time with him.”
Not that Shoji’s record-breaking career has been easy, according to Rubio.
“The thing that most people don’t know and especially in volleyball, is the extreme pressure that he’s under of being a revenue sport at the University of Hawaii,” Rubio said. “What he has to deal with on a daily basis is completely different from what the normal collegiate coach, even at the highest level, has to deal with.”
Hawaii is a member of the Big West, a league in which travel can be tough and money issues even tougher.
Mick Haley has coached at gigantic Texas and is now at sports powerhouse Southern California, which gives him even more appreciation for what Shoji has done. Haley, the coach of the 2000 women’s Olympic team who is beginning his 38th season overall as a college head coach, describes the situation at UH as difficult due to budgetary constraints and huge travel distances. But he says, those obstacles haven’t stopped Shoji.
“Hawaii still produces. They still draw top two or three in the country in attendance and I think it says a lot about the pride of the islands and the way they rally around the University of Hawaii,” said Haley. “You have to give Dave credit for that. There are a lot of people behind the scenes, but he’s the manager, he’s the one that constantly sustains the excellence of the program. That’s not easy to do and he’s done it under some pretty extreme circumstances.”
Shoji credits high-caliber players for lifting up the program.
“We’ve been able to get the right type of player in Hawaii to sustain our ranking and our stature. That part is harder and harder to do because of being the mid-major type school that we are, but I think what draws the type of players we get are the fans and the atmosphere.”
Shoji has managed to attract many of the better players from volleyball-rich Hawaii to UH. “[Getting local players] has been huge for us. And we’ve thrived on these under-recruited project-type players who we just train and eventually they become very good players.
“Every four or five years we get a superstar that carries us and we fill in with very capable role players. That’s the fun part of coaching,” he said. “Train someone and get them to their potential.”
Fielding a historically successful team with unpolished players provides evidence of Shoji’s coaching prowess. Accordingly, when you talk to his coaching counterparts, there is nothing but praise.
Terry Liskevych, the former national team coach now in his 10th year at Oregon State, just smiled when asked about his old friend and foe.
“Dave is a great coach, a great guy, and really put Hawaii on the volleyball map,” Liskevych said.
“He’s a great model for what this is about and what it can be,” Illinois coach Kevin Hambly said. “He’s just an amazing guy.”
Minnesota coach Hugh McCutcheon, the former USA men’s and women’s Olympic coach, also chimed in. “The thing that’s great about Dave is he’s passionate. He lives it, his family lives it. That’s why he’s been able to be so successful for so long. It’s not just about his head but his heart as well.”
UCLA coach Michael Sealy, whose Bruins won the 2011 NCAA title, served as Shoji’s assistant in 2009 when the Wahine got to the NCAA national semifinals.
“What I appreciate the most is the family culture he built in Hawaii,” Sealy said. “It was definitely family oriented and the team had that feel so it was a great working relationship.
“When I first showed up I had never really met Dave and he picked me up at the airport, gave me a big hug, and from day one it was family.”
That’s the case with Shoji’s staff now. His two assistants are Scott Wong, the associate coach and head sand coach who many think will get Shoji’s job when he retires, and Robyn Ah Mow-Santos, former star UH player and women’s national team Olympic setter.
“It’s awesome to coach with him, and I see him not resting on his success,” said Wong, the Hawaii native who starred at Pepperdine before playing professionally for seven years.
“He’s always evolving as the game evolves. So it’s an honor [to coach for him].”
Wong said Shoji insists that you never settle for anything and keep standards high.
“When you’re with him you see the true colors come out. That’s one of the neat things about him, who he is as a coach and for the players. He’s a quality individual.”
And you want more family?
How about two sons on the USA national team? Kawika—the 2010 NCAA Player of the Year—and Erik played together on Stanford’s 2010 men’s NCAA-championship team. Now Kawika is a setter on the U.S. men’s team that had such a fantastic performance this summer in the FIVB World League, and Erik is the team’s libero.
“How cool is that?” Rose asked. This summer at the invitation of head coach John Speraw, Rose spent time helping with the men’s national team. Accordingly, he saw Shoji in Chicago and Long Beach for World League matches.
“Has anyone else had two children on the national team at the same time?” Rose asked. “I don’t know, but it was really good to see him watching his sons play.”
• • •
Golf is Shoji’s other passion. At 5-foot-8 and 150 pounds, Shoji appears as fit as a young man.
“I play golf a lot. I walk the course. And I do some kind of [exercise] machine almost every day.”
His friends say he’s pretty serious about his golf game.
“I like to play. I have a nice group of guys I like to play with and it’s competitive,” he said with a smile.
“Yes, that’s probably the only reason I would play. It makes what we’re doing more interesting.”
He also uses the sport as a big UH volleyball fundraiser, organizing the annual Dave Shoji Invitational Golf Tournament.
Golf is something he took up later in life. Shoji’s parents were from California and the family moved to Hawaii when he was 3, but he went to high school in California. His dad, Shoji explained, was out of the country a lot for work, so he went to live with his aunt and uncle in Upland, west of Los Angeles.
He played baseball growing up, as a shortstop in high school and then as a second baseman for a year at UC Santa Barbara.
He had a roommate who played volleyball.
“I started just informally playing with him, and I took a class where the teacher happened to be the coach at Santa Barbara and I started to play a lot more. By my junior year I went out for the team and made it.”
Shoji, who weighed 130 pounds at the time, found his niche.
“The game came pretty easily to me,” he said. “It’s not a complicated game.”
“Size wasn’t a huge factor back then. Our middles were 6'4" and our outsides were 6'1" or so and both our setters were 5'8", 5'9". I don’t think I could play today, being the height I am, but back then I was fine.” Indeed, he became a two-time All-American.
Shoji graduated from Santa Barbara and went into the Army for two years. His first job after he returned to civilian life was as head coach of the Kalani High School girls’ and boys’ volleyball teams. He then took an assistant coaching job at volleyball-renowned Punahou School. He was 28 when he took over the 1-year-old UH women’s program in 1975.
The rest, as they say, is history, with the Rainbow Wahine winning the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) national title in 1979 and NCAA crowns in 1982, ’83, and ’87. The list of great players he’s coached is long and he’s smarter than to pick any favorites, not even Deitre Collins, Teee Williams, Heather Bown, Ah Mow-Santos, Kim Willoughby, or even his latest standout player, Emily Hartong. He did say that Tara Hittle (2004-08) was his funniest player ever.
“I’ve had so many great players I would hate to single out anybody. There have been dozens of great players. We’ve had a lot of great kids in 40 years.”
The skills of these many wonderful athletes added up to him becoming the all-time winningest women’s coach. He stands at 1,128-189-1, and last season he passed Andy Banachowski, the former UCLA women's coach, for the top spot with victory number 1,107.
“To be associated with Andy and what he did, we coached so long against each other, it was an honor to pass him.”
• • •
It’s hard to imagine staying in one job in any line of work for 40 years. Al Scates stayed 50 as the UCLA men’s coach; Banachowski coached the UCLA women for 43.
“Every coach I’ve ever worked for has been at their job for 40 years,” Sealy, who played for Scates and coached for Banachowski and Shoji, deadpanned. “It’s not that new and exciting.”
“Seriously, considering I’ve been at one place for four years, 40 is unbelievable.”
Wong credits his boss’s off-the-court life for helping him stay at the helm for so long.
“He’s got great balance in his life and great family around him that keeps him whole, in a sense,” Wong said. “That’s one of the secrets of his success, that he has a great balance in his life.”
Perhaps, but you have to have the drive to sustain the will to win. And Shoji does.
“I’m a very competitive person,” Shoji said. “The matches themselves are very exciting to me. That’s what keeps me going.
“I love the players. They’ve taught me a lot and I love to be around them. I love to help them. I just can’t think of anything I would rather do right now. I know I can do this another year.”
Obviously he’s been asked for a while when he would retire and he’s admitted that the last couple of years he has considered all aspects.
“Physically I’m fine. I guess [the reason I would retire] would be to find out what more we could do in life.”
That would include seeing some places with Mary, his wife of 28 years.
“We haven’t traveled to see countries. We’ve traveled to do volleyball,” Shoji reflected.
He said specifically that he wishes he could see Brazil as a tourist, which, not coincidentally, is where the Shoji boys will be competing in the 2016 Olympics, assuming they remain on the national-team roster.
Shoji turns 68 on Dec. 4. Which, of course, brings up the big question again.
Will he coach after next season?
“I’m going to finish this season,” Shoji said with a smile, “and then evaluate things.”
Originally published in October 2014